Saturday, July 25, 2009

9 Famous Things Invented by Accident

We tend to hold inventors in high esteem, but often their discoveries were the result of an accident or twist of fate. This is true of many everyday items, including the following surprise inventions.

1. Play-Doh

One smell most people remember from childhood is the odor of Play-Doh, the brightly-colored, nontoxic modeling clay. Play-Doh was accidentally invented in 1955 by Joseph and Noah McVicker while trying to make a wallpaper cleaner. It was marketed a year later by toy manufacturer Rainbow Crafts. More than 700 million pounds of Play-Doh have sold since then, but the recipe remains a secret.

2. Fireworks

Fireworks originated in China some 2,000 years ago, and legend has it that they were accidentally invented by a cook who mixed together charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter -- all items commonly found in kitchens in those days. The mixture burned and when compressed in a bamboo tube, it exploded. There's no record of whether it was the cook's last day on the job.

3. Potato Chips

If you can't eat just one potato chip, blame it on chef George Crum. He reportedly created the salty snack in 1853 at Moon's Lake House near Saratoga Springs, New York. Fed up with a customer who continuously sent his fried potatoes back, complaining that they were soggy and not crunchy enough, Crum sliced the potatoes as thin as possible, fried them in hot grease, then doused them with salt. The customer loved them and "Saratoga Chips" quickly became a popular item at the lodge and throughout New England.

Eventually, the chips were mass-produced for home consumption, but since they were stored in barrels or tins, they quickly went stale. Then, in the 1920s, Laura Scudder invented the airtight bag by ironing together two pieces of waxed paper, thus keeping the chips fresh longer. Today, chips are packaged in plastic or foil bags or cardboard containers and come in a variety of flavors, including sour cream and onion, barbecue, and salt and vinegar.

4. Slinky

In 1943, naval engineer Richard James was trying to develop a spring that would support and stabilize sensitive equipment on ships. When one of the springs accidentally fell off a shelf, it continued moving, and James got the idea for a toy. His wife Betty came up with the name, and when the Slinky made its debut in late 1945, James sold 400 of the bouncy toys in 90 minutes. Today, more than 250 million Slinkys have been sold worldwide.

5. Saccharin

Saccharin, the oldest artificial sweetener, was accidentally discovered in 1879 by researcher Constantine Fahlberg, who was working at Johns Hopkins University in the laboratory of professor Ira Remsen. Fahlberg's discovery came after he forgot to wash his hands before lunch. He had spilled a chemical on his hands and it, in turn, caused the bread he ate to taste unusually sweet.

In 1880, the two scientists jointly published the discovery, but in 1884, Fahlberg obtained a patent and began mass-producing saccharin without Remsen. The use of saccharin did not become widespread until sugar was rationed during World War I, and its popularity increased during the 1960s and 1970s with the manufacture of Sweet'N Low and diet soft drinks.

6. Post-it Notes

A Post-it note is a small piece of paper with a strip of low-tack adhesive on the back that allows it to be temporarily attached to documents, walls, computer monitors, and just about anything else. The idea for the Post-it note was conceived in 1974 by Arthur Fry as a way of holding bookmarks in his hymnal while singing in the church choir. He was aware of an adhesive accidentally developed in 1968 by fellow 3M employee Spencer Silver. No application for the lightly sticky stuff was apparent until Fry's idea. The 3M company was initially skeptical about the product's profitability, but in 1980, the product was introduced around the world. Today, Post-it notes are sold in more than 100 countries.

7. Silly Putty

It bounces, it stretches, it breaks -- it's Silly Putty, the silicone-based plastic clay marketed as a children's toy by Binney & Smith, Inc. During World War II, while attempting to create a synthetic rubber substitute, James Wright dropped boric acid into silicone oil. The result was a polymerized substance that bounced, but it took several years to find a use for the product.

Finally, in 1950, marketing expert Peter Hodgson saw its potential as a toy, renamed it Silly Putty, and a classic toy was born! Not only is it fun, Silly Putty also has practical uses -- it picks up dirt, lint, and pet hair; can stabilize wobbly furniture; and is useful in stress reduction, physical therapy, and in medical and scientific simulations. It was even used by the crew of Apollo 8 to secure tools in zero gravity.

8. Microwave Ovens

The microwave oven is now a standard appliance in most American households, but it has only been around since the late 1940s. In 1945, Percy Spencer was experimenting with a new vacuum tube called a magnetron while doing research for the Raytheon Corporation. He was intrigued when the candy bar in his pocket began to melt, so he tried another experiment with popcorn. When it began to pop, Spencer immediately saw the potential in this revolutionary process.

In 1947, Raytheon built the first microwave oven, the Radarange, which weighed 750 pounds, was 51/2 feet tall, and cost about $5,000. When the Radarange first became available for home use in the early 1950s, its bulky size and expensive price tag made it unpopular with consumers. But in 1967, a much more popular 100-volt, countertop version was introduced at a price of $495.

9. Corn Flakes

In 1894, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was the superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. He and his brother Will Keith Kellogg were Seventh Day Adventists, and they were searching for wholesome foods to feed patients that also complied with the Adventists' strict vegetarian diet. When Will accidentally left some boiled wheat sitting out, it went stale by the time he returned. Rather than throw it away, the brothers sent it through rollers, hoping to make long sheets of dough, but they got flakes instead. They toasted the flakes, which were a big hit with patients, and patented them under the name Granose. The brothers experimented with other grains, including corn, and in 1906, Will created the Kellogg's company to sell the corn flakes. On principle, John refused to join the company because Will lowered the health benefits of the cereal by adding sugar.

The Million-Dollar Idea in Everyone: Easy New Ways to Make Money from Your Interests, Insights, and Inventions

IdeaSpotting: How to Find Your Next Great Idea

How to Make Millions with Your Ideas: An Entrepreneur's Guide by Dan S. Kennedy

101 Businesses You Can Start With Less Than One Thousand Dollars: For Stay-at-Home Moms & Dads

Make Your Ideas Mean Business

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Virtual Graffiti

Link of the day - I will pay you $25, if you come up with a cool domain name for me.

Although street art is experiencing a renaissance, the old issue of vandalism remains. YrWall is an interactive virtual graffiti wall that avoids the drips and damage because, quite simply, there's no paint involved. Users paint on a projection screen using a can that's actually an infra-red beam controlled by a button and tracked using a computer vision system. By pressing the faux spray can's button, users draw on the wall much like using their computer's draw function, but without the mouse and on a much larger scale. A pop-up interface provides an array of digital paint colours and also allows users to select themes like nature or urban; grabbing images from these themes to add to their piece.

YrWall, which can be hired short- or long-term or installed bespoke, has already been quite a hit at events like the UK's Secret Garden Party. Adding to the concept's appeal and branding opportunities, people can receive a free digital copy of their art to share with friends, or can have their design printed on t-shirts and stickers right after they've finalized their piece.

While YrWall isn't going to eclipse the interest in genuine street art and good old spray-can graffiti, it’s an appealing mix of physical and digital, and of performance and play. Which could make for an irresistible offering for event organizers and their novelty-seeking clients.

101 Businesses You Can Start With Less Than One Thousand Dollars: For Stay-at-Home Moms & Dads

Weekend Entrepreneur: 101 Great Ways to Earn Extra Cash

The Perfect Business

eBay 101: Selling on eBay For Part-time or Full-time Income, Beginner to PowerSeller in 90 Days

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

America's Weirdest Businesses


Runs events at which adults "explore communication, boundaries, and affection" by donning pajamas and getting physical. Ix-nay on the naughty stuff.


A million-dollar company that makes a single product: foam balls for car aerials.


Members create and track lists of things they want to achieve before they die.


Get paid for picking domain names for other people


Drive-through strip joint.


Service for contacting the dead. Terminally ill patients memorize messages and deliver them when opportunity permits.


Writes full-length corporate theme songs. The ultimate in hold music!


Creates pregnancy announcements that purportedly come from the womb.


Video-game-coaching services. Offers "world-class instruction" in Halo 2.


Menu features a quadruple bypass burger, flatliner fries ("deep fried in PURE LARD!"), and Jolt cola. Also available: unfiltered cigarettes.

Feel inspired to start your own weird business? These books might help

101 Businesses You Can Start With Less Than One Thousand Dollars: For Stay-at-Home Moms & Dads

Weekend Entrepreneur: 101 Great Ways to Earn Extra Cash

The Perfect Business

eBay 101: Selling on eBay For Part-time or Full-time Income, Beginner to PowerSeller in 90 Days

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Business Of Neckwear

Link of the day - I will pay you $25, if you come up with a cool domain name for me.

When he was growing up, Efferem Williams would get a new suit each Easter.

Williams would wear that suit to church each Sunday for a year.

"What made it different would be the ties," he said.

When it came to ties, Williams took his cue from an older cousin, Vernon Franklin, who was nicknamed GQ. His splendid collection of ties contrasted sharply with the wide, loud, inappropriate ties usually worn by the church deacons.

That taught Williams to appreciate what a difference the right tie could make.

By the age of 10, ties had become his "passion." He even took to wearing them to school each day, earning the nickname "Church Boy."

Today Williams, 38, who works as an administrator at the University of Florida's Health Sciences Center in Jacksonville, has translated that passion into a business.

In partnership with Franklin, who lives in Charleston where they both grew up, Williams launched Knotacess in 2004.

Twice a year he helps design 12 new ties. Then he arranges for the ties, made of silk, to be manufactured in China, producing about 250 of each design.

They sell the ties through the company Web site,, through a handful of retail stores across the Southeast and at various trade shows. The ties generally range in price from $45 to $65.

"Our goal is to be very private and very exquisite," said Williams, whose wife, Valarie, is a music teacher.

With help from his kids, Joycelyn, 11, and Joshua, 7, he gives a name to each tie.

On the Web site, you'll find Brown Sugar, Lemon Drop, Charleston Lime, Boardroom, Dreamsickle, Gala and Zebra among many others.

Williams has started an affiliated nonprofit, Knots4Kids that offers programs to teach kids about healthy etiquette, how to manage money and how to dress. Of course learning to tie a perfect knot is part of the process.

He offers instructions on how to tie three styles of knot for the standard tie, Windsor, half-Windsor and four-in-hand. His personal preference is the Windsor, a broad, symmetrical knot named for Edward VII, England's king in the first decade of the 20th century.

But even more than a regular tie with a Windsor knot, Williams likes bow ties, which he generally wears twice a week.

"A tie can say a lot about your personality," he noted.

Political leaders often wear gold ties, which exude authority, he said. Blue ties can portray warmth and compassion, green ties are peaceful.

"My tie is one of the things that makes me who I am," he said.

101 Businesses You Can Start With Less Than One Thousand Dollars: For Stay-at-Home Moms & Dads

Weekend Entrepreneur: 101 Great Ways to Earn Extra Cash

The Perfect Business

eBay 101: Selling on eBay For Part-time or Full-time Income, Beginner to PowerSeller in 90 Days

Sweet Success with Sprinkles Cupcakes

Link of the day - I will pay you $25, if you come up with a cool domain name for me.

Sometimes success can be found only after changing career directions.

Candace Nelson was a former investment banker who realized, after losing her job in the dot-com bust, that her life's passion is baking. Candace then traded her suits to a baker's uniform and found culinary success with her cupcakes.

Candace came from a long line of cooks. Her great grandmother was renowned in the 1930s for the distinctive desserts she created in her San Francisco restaurant. So she went to a pastry school to further her hone her skills.

After graduation, Candace decided to start a business creating show-stopping custom cakes from her kitchen. However, she realized that three tier cakes are more of event cakes and she wanted her creations to be enjoyed as often as possible. She pared down her creations, and inspired by the cupcake bakeries in New York, decided to create tasty cupcakes.

In 2005, Candace first opened her cupcake bakery that she called Sprinkles in Beverly Hills, California. Her cupcakes, based on her own recipes, were an immediate hit. During their first few days of operation, her bakery sold out its inventory hours before the scheduled closing time. Soon Sprinkles was selling 1,000 cupcakes a day, with lines going around the block.

Her cupcakes have since been featured in shows like Oprah, Good Morning America, Today Show, even in Entourage. She has since opened 7 other Sprinkles bakeries in CA, TX and AZ areas, Plans are afoot to expand and open more stores in areas such as Washington DC, Miami, New York, and even Tokyo.

101 Businesses You Can Start With Less Than One Thousand Dollars: For Stay-at-Home Moms & Dads

Weekend Entrepreneur: 101 Great Ways to Earn Extra Cash

The Perfect Business

eBay 101: Selling on eBay For Part-time or Full-time Income, Beginner to PowerSeller in 90 Days

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Chegg.Com Success Story

Link of the day - I will pay you $25, if you come up with a cool domain name for me.

Success in Silicon Valley often emerges through trial and error. Willingness to buck popular trends can help, too.

Just ask Osman Rashid and Aayush Phumbhra, the co-founders of, a company that rents textbooks to college students.

When the two entrepreneurs started Chegg, then called CheggPost, in 2003, they envisioned a sort of Craigslist for college campuses, a network of university-based Web sites where students would buy and sell everything from used mattresses to textbooks. Like most Internet start-ups of that time, the plan was to make money from advertising.

It didn’t turn out that way. CheggPost gained some traction on a handful of campuses but didn’t take off. Still, the experience offered a few valuable lessons.

Mr. Rashid noticed that a majority of the traffic on the site was from students looking for used textbooks. With textbooks being the largest expense for students, after tuition and room and board, and with their cost soaring, that wasn’t surprising.

Yet the Craigslist model didn’t work. When classes ended in the spring, sellers couldn’t find many buyers online and sold their used books to the college store, often for pennies on the dollar. By the time students migrated back to campus in the fall, willing online sellers were few and far between.

So, in 2007, Mr. Rashid and Mr. Phumbhra went back to the drawing board and came up with the idea of renting books. At the time, Silicon Valley venture capitalists were focused on content, social networks and other businesses that could be supported by advertising, so finding investors wasn’t easy.

“People thought we were crazy,” Mr. Rashid said.

Now, as Chegg prepares for its third academic year in the textbook rental business, the business is growing rapidly. Jim Safka, a former chief executive of and who was recently recruited to run Chegg, said the company’s revenue in 2008 was more than $10 million. This year, Chegg surpassed that in January alone, Mr. Safka said.

Based on that kind of growth, the company was able to raise $25 million in December from some of Silicon Valley’s top venture capitalists, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

“The textbook business was wildly inefficient,” said Mike Maples Jr., managing partner at Maples Investments, a fund that invests in young start-ups; it was one of Chegg’s first outside investors.

With demand for good deals on textbooks running high, Chegg’s success comes in large part from being able to address those inefficiencies. While Chegg primarily rents books, it is also essentially acting as a kind of “market maker,” gathering books from sellers at the end of a semester and renting — or sometimes selling — them to other students at the start of a new one. That provides liquidity to the market, said Yannis Bakos, associate professor of management at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

“The model is clever,” Professor Bakos said. “If they execute well, it will be an accomplishment.”

E-commerce was all the rage with investors during the Internet boom of the late 1990s. Of course, many start-ups failed. In recent years, most of the successful ideas in e-commerce have been refinements or variations of models that had been tried before.

In the case of Chegg and some budding competitors, the inspiration was Netflix.

“We benefit from the comfort zone that people have with renting things online from Netflix,” said Colin Barceloux, the co-founder of, a Chegg rival that is also based in Silicon Valley.

Alan Bradford, a senior at Arizona State University, read about Chegg in a campus newspaper in 2008 and calculated that his bill for books that semester would have been $334 with Chegg, far less than the $657 he paid. Since then, he has ordered about a dozen textbooks from Chegg.

“Nobody likes paying for textbooks,” he said.

CHEGG is shorthand for “chicken and egg,” a reference to what Mr. Rashid called students’ quandary after graduation: they need experience to get a job, but can’t get experience without having a job.

Before the company grew relatively flush from investors’ cash and hundreds of thousands of customers on more than 5,000 campuses, it had to resort to creative bootstrapping.

Chegg began renting books before it owned any, so when an order came in, its employees would surf the Web to find a cheap copy. They would buy the book using Mr. Rashid’s American Express card and have it shipped to the student. Eventually, Chegg automated the system.

But as the orders multiplied, Mr. Rashid said, so did the traffic on his credit card, leading American Express to suspect fraud and threaten to suspend the account. He said he persuaded American Express not only to keep the card active, but also to issue a couple of dozen more so Chegg could spread out the orders.

There is plenty of secret sauce to Chegg’s business, including logistics and software to determine the pricing and sourcing of books, as well as how many times a given book can be rented. The savings can vary from book to book. A macroeconomics textbook that retails for $122 was available on Chegg for $65 for one semester; an organic chemistry title retailing for $123 was offered for $33. (Round-trip shipping can add $4 to a book.)

Those kinds of savings are turning students into fans, Mr. Safka said. “Word of mouth,” he said, “has put wind in the company’s sails.”

101 Businesses You Can Start With Less Than One Thousand Dollars: For Stay-at-Home Moms & Dads

Weekend Entrepreneur: 101 Great Ways to Earn Extra Cash

The Perfect Business

eBay 101: Selling on eBay For Part-time or Full-time Income, Beginner to PowerSeller in 90 Days

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Commercial Skydiving

Link of the day - I will pay you $25, if you come up with a cool domain name for me.

Matthew Fitch learned it the hard way: Sometimes you've got to look -- twice! -- before you leap.

Fitch, 38, is the owner of Aerial Adventures Demos in Hopewell, Va., one of a handful of national parachuting companies that drop skydivers into outdoor events, with clients including San Francisco's Emerald Bowl and the Atlanta Braves. Last summer Fitch got national press after jumping into Duke University's football stadium. The problem? He was supposed to be at the stadium of the team's archrival, the University of North Carolina, about eight miles away.

The experience left him undeterred. "We'll jump into anything," he says.

That includes a new business venture. Last month the former Navy communications officer opened No Limits Skydiving, a parachuting school. After eight years his event-jumping business had hit a plateau of about 30 appearances per year, which generated $100,000 in annual revenues. He hopes that the school, which will charge $225 per tandem jump, will quickly grow to double his business.

For Fitch, investing in the school included a $10,000 down payment on an airplane. He also purchased several $10,000 tandem parachute rigs and spent thousands more building a Web site and printing flyers.

But that doesn't guarantee a smooth ride. "This is a tough business," says Ed Scott, executive director of the United States Parachute Association. "You are totally dependent on the weather, because you can't jump in high winds or low clouds. There's a lot of overhead, including airplane operation, skydiving-gear maintenance and insurance."

Fitch will continue his event jumps, which provide free publicity for his school. And precision is no problem now, says client Ryan Oppelt, assistant executive director of the Emerald Bowl. "When you do a television event, you follow a script," he explains. "The Aerial Adventures guys had perfect timing." Fitch hopes his new business will make an equally flawless landing.

101 Businesses You Can Start With Less Than One Thousand Dollars: For Stay-at-Home Moms & Dads

Weekend Entrepreneur: 101 Great Ways to Earn Extra Cash

The Perfect Business

eBay 101: Selling on eBay For Part-time or Full-time Income, Beginner to PowerSeller in 90 Days